No sun? No problem. Here's how to make your garden shine.
Shady Paradise
Credit: Ralph Anderson

Drive through this small residential area in Greenwood, South Carolina, and you'll see rows of tidy homes with large expanses of grass covering the landscape. One house, though, looks different. With the exception of a tiny strip of lawn in the front, this yard is filled with beautiful ornamental trees, showy shrubs, and lush perennials. There is no doubt these homeowners are plant people.

The Gardeners
John and Billie Elsley live in the modest white home with the gorgeous surrounding landscape, but they're not your average gardeners. John is the director of horticulture for Klehm's Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery, finding and developing superior plants for the mail-order company. Billie, a retired horticultural therapist, volunteers at a local elementary school teaching children about gardening. They both enjoy getting their hands in the dirt. Billie keeps the many containers filled, and John diligently tends to the yard. Over the years, the couple has turned their lackluster landscape into a botanical wonderland.

Working the Soil
John believes you need deep, rich soil for a successful garden. He doesn't use a tiller, because they mostly break up the top couple of inches of earth. Instead, he amends the soil the old-fashioned way. Using a spade, he digs down and turns it to a depth of about 12 inches. With a garden fork, he breaks up the dirt clods and mixes in leaf mold and finely shredded pine bark containing fertilizer.

Some areas of the garden feature raised beds. After constructing the walls, John filled the beds with topsoil and organic matter. Years ago, when he first started building the beds, John used cedar posts. But he has replaced the old wood with low stone walls. He loves the look of this material and knows it will last forever. The stones also allow him to make smooth curves, as opposed to the linear look of wooden timbers.

Today, the couple's whole yard, covered in a foot of rich, black soil, allows plants to sink their roots down deep into the ground. The area includes several big hardwood trees, and each year the Elsleys let the leaves fall into the beds where they slowly break down to replenish the soil. They don't use insecticides. Plants thrive in the nutrient-rich surroundings, making them more robust and resistant to diseases and insects. Their strong root systems also help promote drought tolerance.

Water From Above
Even during hot, dry spells, a soft rain showers the garden. John installed a unique irrigation system that includes sprinkler heads mounted to tree trunks 20 feet above the ground. Hidden on the back of the trunks, the pipes are barely visible. Ground-level sprinkler heads can beat up tender plants, and shrubs often block their spray patterns. John's system waters gently and offers excellent unobstructed coverage--just like Mother Nature.

Designing With Foliage
John and Billie both have a great eye for design. The Elsleys' garden floor resembles a tapestry of woven foliage. Fluffy ferns or lacy-leaved Japanese maples surround sweeps of spectacular hostas for an eye-catching play on textures. "Flowers are often overrated, and in this garden, blooms are secondary," says John. Shades of green, splashes of variegated plants, and leaves tinted red, chartreuse, blue, and even black brighten the shady landscape.

Playing Favorites
Although hundreds of plants thrive in the garden, John is particularly fond of a few. He developed the Royal Heritage Hybrid hellebores and says these vigorous plants provide outstanding foliage along with colorful, long-lasting blooms. He also loves Japanese maples and planted many dwarf forms that mingle with the shrubs and perennials. Taller maples canopy the beds and walkways, creating beautiful shadows in the garden as the sun sifts through their intricately shaped leaves.

Constantly Changing
The Elsleys' garden evolves each year. John likes to sample different trees, shrubs, and perennials to test their hardiness and see how they respond to our hot, humid Southern climate. Because he works for a nursery and travels to gardens all over the world, John is constantly tempted by botanical treats, and the yard just isn't big enough to suit his horticultural appetite.

If he likes a plant but knows it's not supposed to grow in his area, he might just try it anyway. In theory, tropical lady's slipper orchids shouldn't grow in Greenwood, but it looks as if nobody mentioned that to the beautiful plants thriving in his garden.

"Shady Paradise Filled With Lush Terrain" is from the July 2005 issue of Southern Living.